Patriots manhandled Chargers right from the get-go
FOXBOROUGH — Instant Analysis from the Patriots’ 41-28 win over the Chargers:
■ The Patriots certainly closed out their home schedule in style. They jumped all over the Chargers from the get-go, and played their most complete and dominant game of the season. The offensive line manhandled the Chargers’ defensive front, Tom Brady was locked in, and Sony Michel and Julian Edelman were unstoppable. And the result was the Patriots earning their eighth straight trip to the AFC Championship game, an NFL record.
Sunday’s game marked the first playoff game the Patriots had ever scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, and they actually did it on four straight. The Chargers had been 9-0 when getting on a plane this season, but ran into a buzz saw at Gillette Stadium.
■ The Patriots’ offense has now scored 38 and 41 points in consecutive games. But both games were at home. Now they hit the road, where they are just 3-5 this season, and averaging only 21.6 points per game. And they have to play in Kansas City, which has been one of the toughest road venues in the NFL for the Patriots. But the Patriots are playing their best ball of the season, and if they play next week like they did Sunday, they can absolutely win in KC and head to their fourth Super Bowl in five years.
■ The Chargers made a few impressive plays — Philip Rivers can really pinpoint some nice throws — but they didn’t come to play. They punted five straight times after an opening-possession touchdown, and the defense got its doors blown off. It looked like the long travel, time change, and cold weather finally caught up with them.
■ The Chargers’ injury situation at linebacker forced them to play six or seven defensive backs for pretty much the entire game, and the Patriots manhandled their lighter defense.
How badly did the Patriots’ offensive line dominate the Chargers’ defense? Let us count the ways.
1. The run game was unstoppable with Michel rushing 24 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. Michel had a season-long 40-yard rush, and also runs of 12 and 14 yards. The Patriots averaged 4.9 yards per rush for the game, but it was 5.5 yards through three quarters before the Patriots ran out the clock in the fourth. Rex Burkhead also waltzed into the end zone for an easy 6-yard touchdown.
2. The screen game to James White was on point. White caught 15 passes for 97 yards, including gains of 23 and 25 yards. The Patriots were backed up to first and 20 after a holding call, and White promptly gained 23 yards on the next play.
3. Brady was barely touched all day. He dropped back to pass 44 times, and was hit twice — once by Melvin Ingram, once by Desmond King. That’s it.
4. Joey Bosa and Ingram were rendered irrelevant. Neither had a sack. Ingram had two tackles, one QB hit, one tackle for loss, and one pass batted down at the line of scrimmage. Bosa had a half tackle, and that’s it — no QB hits, no sacks, no nothing.
■ The entire starting offensive line gets a gold star, plus tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, and fullback James Develin. The big fellas opened up gigantic holes all day, and did a great job of getting to the second level and mauling the Chargers’ secondary.
■ Michel had his best game of the season. His 129 yards were his second-highest total of the season (and fifth-most in Patriots postseason history), and this was the Michel we’ve been waiting to see. He showed great breakaway speed on the 40-yard run; excellent vision on his 14-yard touchdown run to the pylon; and impressive power on some of his short-yardage runs. The Patriots are now 5-0 this season when Michel rushes for 100 yards.
■ The Patriots really had only three offensive weapons on Sunday, but that’s all they needed. Michel provided more than enough on the ground. Edelman had one of the best games of his career, catching nine passes for 151 yards and running through Chargers defenders like a man possessed. And White caught 15 balls for 97 yards out of the backfield. Gronk was mostly a decoy, getting just one target, a 25-yard catch. Phillip Dorsett finally made some plays, catching four passes for 41 yards and a touchdown. Chris Hogan was invisible again, catching just three passes for 13 yards.
■ And Brady was on point, completing 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown. Josh McDaniels came up with a great game plan — lots of quick passes to neutralize the Chargers’ pass rush — and Brady executed it flawlessly.
■ The Chargers took a lot of criticism during the game for not switching from their six- and seven-DB defense, but I’m not sure what they could have done. They were only using that personnel package because of injuries.
But the Chargers do deserve plenty of criticism for mostly playing zone defense, and not matching up man to man. They let Edelman and Dorsett run free off the line of scrimmage all game, and never chipped Gronkowski. The Chargers basically let three players beat them.
■ Excellent job by the Patriots’ defense to eliminate the Chargers’ running backs. Melvin Gordon rushed just nine times for 15 yards and only had one catch, and Austin Ekeler had just three catches for 19 yards. The running backs are the focal point of the Chargers’ offense, and Bill Belichick and Brian Flores did a great job of taking them out of the game and making the Chargers play lefthanded.
■ The Patriots also did a great job of mixing up their defensive looks and confusing Rivers with their “amoeba” front. They officially only sacked him twice, but Trey Flowers had a sack wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty, and Dont’a Hightower got several pressures on Rivers to force him into an incompletion. More importantly, they forced Rivers to rush his throws and throw off his back foot, and almost came down with several interceptions. Rookie J.C. Jackson once again had an excellent game, and has been a great find for the Patriots.
■ The Chargers’ receivers got their stats, but it was all in garbage time. After three quarters, the Patriots led, 38-14, and outgained the Chargers, 415 yards to 183. Rivers finished 25 of 51 for 331 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception, but he threw for 153 yards and two TDs in garbage time.
■ The one concern on defense was the bad coverage lapse by Stephon Gilmore, which resulted in a 43-yard touchdown catch for Keenan Allen in the first quarter. Gilmore was caught looking in the backfield and lost Allen, who was wide open for the touchdown. The play ultimately didn’t matter, but you hate to see coverage breakdowns like that, especially with a matchup against the Chiefs coming next week. That Allen touchdown looked just like Tyreek Hill blowing past the Patriots for a long touchdown last season. Gilmore at least made up for it with an excellent leaping interception late in the fourth quarter.